No accounting for rail's mystery workers

AUG. 10, 2010


The proposed California High-Speed Rail project is a monumental undertaking in terms of money, personnel, time and effort. The state’s own estimates say the whole system – which includes 800 miles of bullet train rails running up and down California — will cost at least $45 billion, making it one of the largest public works project in state history. In fact, it’s so complex that the state officials overseeing the effort can’t say for certain how many people are actually working on it.

California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) personnel provided an estimated range of contractor employees: between 4,051 and 5,545 people are currently working for bullet train contractors statewide. Of course, those figures only take into account personnel working for eight of the 14 authority contractors. There are also myriad sub-contractors whose employees aren’t factored into that range.

The best authority staff could do was give the numbers of people employed on 12 contracts (some firms hold multiple contracts). For instance, San Francisco-based URS currently holds two high-speed rail contracts – track alignments for the Fresno to Bakersfield run as well as the Bakersfield to Palmdale run. Those contracts, according to the figures provided by the authority, employ 952 and 929 people, respectively.

Authority staff could not say for certain, but speculated that some of the same URS employees may work on both contracts. What’s more, authority staff provided an incomplete list of contractors, excluding Newlands & Company (visual simulation production), Infrastructure Management Group (financing plan preparation), Carter & Burgess (program manager performance review), MGT Strategic Plan (strategic plan preparation), Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide (public information program) and Nossaman, LLP (legal services).

“Please note these were the only contracts that I have a staff count for,” Rachel Weninger, an authority staffer, wrote in her Aug. 6 e-mail that included the contractor employee figures. “This information was provided by the Contractors. Also, some of the companies that have more than one alignment may have duplicate employees listed under their staff count.”

Later that day, Weninger e-mailed two more qualifications to the already admittedly incomplete data she’d provided. “My supervisors also wanted me to clarify that I included part-time and full-time employees in the totals,” she wrote. “And that the staff is decreases and devoted to other projects if the workload decreases.”

Translation: it is impossible to provide a number of how many people are actually working on California’s bullet trains. This comes at a time before the state has ordered a single locomotive or laid down a single track segment.

The information was also apparently difficult for Weninger to obtain. She found no public records listing contractor employment numbers, so she contacted each and every company herself (High-Speed Rail Authority contracts for most of the firms prohibit company officials from talking to the media).

When given a copy of the CHSRA figures, Assembly member and High-Speed Rail Authority critic Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, drew a scathing parallel to her own recent attempts at getting a rigorous analysis of the Authority’s $9 billion bond.

“There is a very good reason our state is upside down financially – there is little information upon which to make decisions on High Speed Rail or any other state project,” Harkey e-mailed on Aug. 9. “In order to track staffing, dollars, or project progress we need the Investment Grade Analysis that the voters were promised with the passage of the $9 billion bond. An Investment Grade Analysis would provide a risk assessment, tell us who pays and how much, as well as provide us with a tracking mechanism for 25 years at five-year intervals so that we could see if the project was on-line with projections. I have tried to get support to obtain financial information but my bills have died in committee. As you can tell by the information you have received no one really knows what is going on, but we are spending a lot of borrowed money and hiring staff.”

This story is part of a series on California’s proposed bullet trains. Click here for a look at the gag order the High-Speed Rail Authority imposed on its contractors. Click here for a piece on the authority’s recent public opinion survey. Click here for some scrutiny of the train’s potential ridership. Click here for a story on the governor’s proposed bullet train demonstration. And click here for an examination of how the bullet train system’s will use eminent domain.

Photo: National Archives

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